Escapes The Purple Haze

As Dave Schulps and I rolled along in the darkness to our impending interview, we were filled with apprehension. After all, Ritchie Blackmore has never been known as a pussycat. In fact, most accounts of his years with Deep Purple emphasize his moodiness, sullenness, and even outright hostility. The Teutonic severity of Ritchie's current group, Rainbow, does little to suggest that time had mellowed Blackmore the least bit. We didn't even know where we were being driven! What if Ritchie got annoyed with our questions and had us silenced? Paranoia strikes deep.

There was nothing to worry about, as it happened. After a circuitous drive we pulled up to a suburuban bar in Greenwich, Connecticut (Ritchie lives nearby), and parked ourselves in a greasy-looking swinging singles place. Over a typically giddy barroom roar, interrupted occasionally by notes from an admirer who asked things like are you Deep Purple?, we had our talk.

Ritchie Blackmore turned out to be a genial model of decorum, and was fully prepared to discuss anything. Indeed, when we got over the surprise of discovering him to be a pleasant fellow, he even fielded borderline tactless questions, unthinkable to ask of someone with his image. My only complaint about the thoughtful and open Mr. Blackmore was that he insisted on keeping his juiciest comments off the record.

Rainbow had that evening finished a rehearsal prior to their multi-month tour in support of a new album, Long Live Rock'n'Roll. Seeing as how this was the band's fourth album, why the long wait to try and make a mark on America?

It's just that the other markets came first, Europe and all that. We took advantage of it rather than just playing around America as a small time band. Now the only market left is America and we're the underdog. Most of the time we're sharing the bill with REO Speedwagon and Foghat is topping the bill in some places. It's not like starting again. A lot of people feel that, but it's just something you do. I'm quite looking forward to it. It means I can get back to the bar afterwards. If you're a top-billed act you get back to the hotel and everything's closed.

Did Deep Purple audiences get too big?

They were too big sometimes. It was moving too fast. It's funny how sometimes it will escalate and turn into something that big, when you know you're just the same as any other band. All these people are turning out to see this band and next year they'll be turning out to see some other band equally as bad or as good, whichever way you look at it. The way it's been going I think it's been getting worse. In America you have some very strange big groups.

Like Kiss?

No, Kiss I like because they don't care what people think of them. They take a chance and it's worked. They're the first ones to admit they're not good musicians. I'm talking about middle of the road bands that turn out that lethargic laid back cocaine beat. The dj's love it and they play and play it all the time.

Oh, Fleetwood Mac?

Laughing, Funny you should mention them. Nice people, but I have reservations about what they're doing. But the rest of America doesn't seem to have reservations. It's gone into this mellow thing and I'm not keen on that. I like intense music that comes across as drama, as acting.

The new wave has that excitement, doesn't it?

Well, that's got the impetus, the energy, but it hasn't got the music. That's wrong as well. I don't quite know what I prefer to listen to, the new wave or Fleetwood Mac. I often think of that and I think I would play Fleetwood Mac because I can't take the other stuff.

To go back to square one, when did you start guitaring?

When I was 11. It mostly was my idea along with my father. He made sure I went along to proper lessons, because if I'm gonna have a guitar, I've got to learn it properly.

Did you have it in your mind to rock?

Yeah, because there was a guy called Tommy Steele prancing around with a guitar and Presley and all that lot. I wanted to do that just like everybody else... Duane Eddy, then Hank B. Marvin, then Django Reinhardt, Wes Montgomery, James Burton, Les Paul. I bought all of Les Paul's records up until I was about 17, but after that I didn't have any idols. Then I was mostly praciticing. I listened to rock via Buddy Holly up until 16, 17 (1962). Then I was on my own. I didn't have any inspirations from guitarists, it went more into inspiration from violinists. I don't listen to too much rock 'n roll really. Jimi Hendrix was good and I liked Cream. I wasn't really getting off on people like the Beatles and the Hollies, all that vocal business. The Stones? I considered them idiots. It was just a nick from Chuck Berry riffs. Chuck Berry was OK. Sometimes I'm outspoken, but I don't have any time for the Stones. I can see where they're respected and their rhythms are very good, very steady on record. I respect them but I don't like them.

And the blues?

It might sound condescending but I find them a little too limited. I like to play a blues when I'm jamming, but then I want to get on to other things. I listened to B.B. King for a couple of years but I like singers more than guitarists. Albert King I thought was a brilliant singer. That depth, which comes out in Paul Rodgers too. I do like a blues base to some things, that can be very interesting with classical overtones.

So what was your first professional gig?

My first band was with Screaming Lord Sutch. He had amazing publicity stunts -- he would go up to the Prime Minister and stick his hand out and say 'hello there.' The Prime Minister's first reflex was to shake his hand and suddenly he's thinking 'who is this man?' He's got pictures of him about to shake hands with everyone in the business. He used to copy Screamin' Jay Hawkins.

From there I was onto a group called the Outlaws. I did sessions for three years. They were known as a very steady band, good for session work, so we used to work together for sessions (besides putting out a number of singles of their own). You were just given the music to play, sometimes it was just the backing tracks. It wasn't our job to know who we were playing for, it was just to get the money and go.

Did you read music?

Yeah, but not well. It was more like chord shets. Pagey was in all those sessions. Sometimes you'd get complete rock 'n rollers who could play but wouldn't be able to read and others who could read but wouldn't be able to improvise. Sometimes they'd want rock'n'roll sessions and that's what we'd do.

You and Jimmy Page both played in Neil Christian's band, right?

Blackmore laughed and mused a second before answering: I was with him on and off for about a year. Chris, that's his real name, was a slightly bizarre person to work for. In fact, Jimmy Page played with him for about three years. That's when I first met Pagey. I was 16 years old. He was good then; I rate him as a three-dimensional guitarist.

He has a range, he has ideas, but he can't be everything, so sometimes he lacks on improvisation a bit. He's so caught up with producing and everything else concerned with being a top band. Whereas someone like Jeff Beck is entirely in the opposite direction. Jeff can extemporize really well, but I don't think he can write a song. It's always somebody else's tune. He doesn't have many ideas, but he's a brilliant guitarist.

Our brief search for other three-dimensional guitarists failed to turn up any more that met with Blackmore's approval. Ritchie was asked to evaluate himself.

This is gonna sound very cocky, but I think I can improvise better than any rock guitarist. My failing is composing. I really fall down in composing. I can come up with riffs and I'm good at improvisation, but I'm not very good at putting a song together. I have done, but there's nobody else around to do it anyway. I feel very frustrated in my songwriting, I think it's terrible half the time. But improvising for me is no problem -- in fact, it's something I could do all the time. That might sound slightly weird.

So you tend not to memorize your parts.

No, that's partly my downfall. I have a very bad technical memory, so I can't remember, if I write a tune, exactly what the notes are. It's really exasperating, 'cause I'll write one and 'that's great, I'll play it again and record it.' And I'll play it again and 'oh dear, I've forgotten it. What did I play?' It's really annoying. I don't like to write; it's a chore for me. I do it because there aren't a lot of other people around me who do it. It's not knocking the people around me ... songs are a letdown half the time.

But didn't you do most of Purple's music?

I did most of the riffs and progressions because basically, we had so many arguments in the first two years of Purple, and I was sick of it so I said let's split it five ways, because everyone was bickering about 'I wrote that one note' ... 'Include this song which is a bunch of rubbish, but I wrote it.' Every band goes through that. There's one thing today we haven't got over with modern technology. We haven't found a way to fashion a computer to take the information and tell you who's written the song. That would be very nice.

People said to me, 'You were silly to split it five ways for most of it,' but I said, 'Purple wouldn't have been together at all if I hadn't done that,' because they were very strong-minded people. It would have died out in 1970 if I hadn't done that. They did (write) to a certain extent, but not to the extent that they should have gotten a fifth share on every song. Jon (Lord) would have written what would have been one song an LP, but he would get out of eight songs a fifth share on each song. It's the only way to work. But to give him his due, the drummer (Ian Paice) gave his enthusiasm, Jon was always there for stability. He wouldn't come up with the ideas, but he'd remember them when I forgot them. Ian (Gillan) would write the lyrics, and Roger (Glover) used to write some.

How did Deep Purple get together?

I saw Ian with another band in Hamburg in 1967 and I said 'when I get something I'll let you know.' When this Purple thing came up, I said 'right, we've got something here.' We had a millionaire backer (Chris Curtis, of Searchers fame) -- it's very hard to start without financial backing. He just wanted a very good group. As far as he was concerned Jon was the best organist he knew and I was the best guitarist ... but once we all got together he kind of fell out. I told Jon about Ian and then we got the other two. Jon knew Nick (Simper) and I knew Rod (Evans) the singer. We were all living in one big mansion in England which we used to rehearse in. There were a lot of things happening there, psychic phenomena. For the first few years Purple had no direction whatsoever. If anything, we used to follow what Jon wanted to do, which was OK because nobody else had any ideas.

Be that as it may, Deep Purple roared into the American top five in the fall of 1968 with an acidy remake of Joe South's Hush. Yet that original band never seemed capable of capitalizing on it. How come?

Jeff Wald (Mr. Helen Reddy) was our manager on the road and we did a lot of gigs that didn't mean anything. They were ballrooms, they weren't on the circuit to make it. The only time we really made it was when we supported Rod Stewart, supported him as we're doing now in order to do the right gigs and be seen. We'd be playing around headlining all the wrong places. Nobody knew where to put us. We played with Cream at the Hollywood Bowl, but they never really knew who we were.

I really admired Jim Hendrix and I really loved Vanilla Fudge so we just tried to integrate the two. We did Hey Joe and a lot of standards because we didn't have a lot of writing going on. I'd never written a tune before '69 when I started feeling my way and came up with a few ideas. But at the time we were just so over the moon about playing with good musicians, because we'd had such a hard time finding good musicians. You find them and you ask someone to join -- 'We've got a great band' -- 'Yeah, sure, how much do I get?' -- 'Well, it's only just for the moment.' You know the story. We were just so pleased to be playing with each other that we didn't really care which direction we went in.

[This was] Until about '70, when we decided we should replace the singer and bass player. The singer wanted to go anyway and the bass player was asked to leave. Ritchie's friend Micky Underwood (now with Strapps) was in the soon-to-be-defunct Episode Six, and he invited Ritchie to come down and check out their singer, Ian Gillan.

Ian was amazing, his voice, the way he looked and everything else. Stupendous. We took him right there. We didn't know who to have on bass but Ian recommended Roger.

Why we thought we had to change singers was because of Robert Plant. We were playing at Mother's in Birmingham and Robert got up to sing with Terry Reid. We thought 'Christ almighty.' He was so dynamic. And the next two weeks we were looking for a singer, people who had Robert Plant's dynamic approach. So it was thanks to him.

Zeppelin, I liked their hard approach when they came out and did 'Whole Lotta Love.' I immediately tuned in with that type of style because before when we were fiddling around with orchestras, I thought 'something's wrong, I'm not giving all that I can.' Thanks to them for the inspiration. They got it from Jeff Beck, who got it from the Small Faces...

In Rock was the right formula: agile musicians playing with a tidal wave of force. But not a Zeppelin steal; the textures were much more varied, the sound more flexible. Suddenly escalating popularity soon led to supergroup status. That must have been a little surprising. I was surprised because I was happy to be working.

Did you like the Yardbirds?

Well, Jeff was always brilliant. Yeah, I did like the Yardbirds very much. They were an exception. Jeff was one of the first to use distortion. There's quite a few guys before Jeff that used distortion but you wouldn't have heard of any of them. Like Bernie Watson with Lord Sutch. In 1960 he made a record with Cyril Davies which has an amazing solo, all distortion. It was like Hendrix on a good night. He now plays for the Royal Philharmonic. Just gave it all up.

Ritchie said he was motivated to try something like that in 1963. The results (I just freaked out) can be found on the B-side of the Outlaws' version of I Hear You Knockin'. Archaeologists and fans take note. From there, via You Really Got Me (The solo was too bad to be Page. It had to be Dave Davies.), talk drifted to stealing.

Everybody steals. It's healthy to steal. The thing is to disguise who you're stealing from. I used to steal a lot from Jimi Hendrix. But Rainbow Eyes, on the new album, sounds especially like Jimi.

What it is, is the inflection of playing in fourths. Jimi used to play a lot of fourths. Several single notes he'd play a fourth above and that gave him the effect. On Axis: Bold As Love it's all fourths.

Digress, digress. Some albums and many converts (and bucks) later, Purple found itself in a state of chaos after the recording of Who Do We Think We Are?

I wanted to leave with Ian (Paice) at the time because we'd both had enough. I am a very sensitive kind of person, believe it or not. I was working too hard and couldn't take the strain. I had hepatitis and was in the hospital for a couple of months, which was a good rest for me; I needed it. I said the only way I would stay was if we completely changed the band. 'Get a new bass player and I'll stay.' Ian and Jon said OK. Glenn (Hughes from Trapeze) came in, so I stayed. Ian and I were gonna form another band with Phil Lynott from Thin Lizzy, actually.

What did this aborted group with Lynott sound like?

It was like Hendrix number two. He looked like Hendrix, sounded like Hendrix. He was just singing, Roger was playing because he was a better bass player then. (More than a little odd to ask Glover along considering Blackmore insisted on throwing him out of Purple...)

With the guitar boom in full flower, wasn't there a temptation to do a solo LP? (This question came the closest of any to making Blackmore blow his cool.) Scoffing a little and raising his voice, he said: My solo LP's were Deep Purple! Because off the record... The gist of his comments was that he felt he was doing too much of the work.

To kill off the Purple era (that drew a snicker from Ritchie) he was asked to rate the group's albums.

My favorite LP would be Machine Head followed closely by In Rock and then Burn. Fireball I didn't like. Who Do We Think We Are? I haven't heard for ages. I didn't like it when we did it. We were having a lot of friction at the time, a hell of a lot. Ian (Gillan) was about to leave. I was sick to death of Ian, Ian was sick to death of me. Girlfriends were involved. I thought 'here we go again, another LP.' We'd had one week off the road then we were told to go into the studio and make another LP. It was just ludicrous, we didn't know what to do. I felt great about Burn (the first one with the new group) because we'd had a year to write it.

See ... In Rock up, Fireball down, Machine Head up, Who Do We Think We are? down, Burn up. Stormbringer was on the wane. When we did Stormbringer I thought it was a very cold LP.

Had you decided to leave by the time of Stormbringer?

Yeah, that's it. I thought 'I wanna see what everybody else is doing, I'm tired of pushing the band.' Seven years is long enough. I thought the band was on the decline. There were other bands coming up. Jon was into drinking, wining and dining. Ian was into cars, expensive things.

But the new line-up had worked at first.

It worked for the first year and then it started getting a little bit shaky. It started getting into this funky music. I can't stand it. I like it vicious.

Come Taste The Band, which featured Tommy Bolin on guitar and was the only post-Blackmore LP, seemed to lean in a Stevie Wonder direction.

That's exactly where they were going and I wasn't interested in being around for that! I thought it was only proper of me to say, 'Look, I'm going. I don't want to break up the band but I'm off. Get another guitarist and do your thing.' I just didn't want to be around for all that cool pseudo ... They were shocked. My music was up-front music, hate music. Their music was becoming much more like 'if you don't like it just click your fingers.'

I wanted to get out gracefully if I could. What I thought was just a matter of opinion. I thought, 'Now it'll be interesting to see because I'm not pushing my ideas. Let's see your ideas.' Which, whenever I said that in the studio they'd say, 'Oh, well, we don't have any ideas,' or 'We're waiting to see what you can think so we can collect the twenty percent.' But it sounds bitter to say that.

I took a gamble because at that time I'd acquired enough money to say, 'I'm gonna take a chance and go out gracefully and maybe make a crash landing in something else. But I'm certainly not gonna go down with a big name band.' I could have stayed with Purple and earned a good living for five years, a steady kind of decline (laughs). But I wasn't interested. It was very cushy the last two years of Purple, everything was financed. They said, 'Do the California Jam.' I said 'No.' 'You'll make half a million.' 'We'll do it.'

There were some stories of you demolishing cameras there.

When I'm on stage I feel very hyper anyway and it was a combination of that and being very annoyed because they'd given us hell. They'd been so conservative about the whole festival. Everything was built around the fact that this was gonna be a festival for the benefit of the camera people from ABC. 'The kids that paid ten dollars each will not have any fun, but we don't care if they won't be able to see the band. That's beside the point as long as we get the money.'

I said to my manager 'I hope they're not gonna have a press enclosure.' I looked the next day and sure enough there was about 100 feet of just press who were bored stiff. The audience was about a hundred yards away so I insisted that they let the people who had paid into the press enclosure. I was going on getting madder and madder. All the kids were in the distance going 'yaaaa yaaaa' and the press were going 'oh boring, another loud metal rock 'n roll band. Where's the beer?' You don't need that.

I hate the business. I love the fans and I love the music. But I don't like the radio, I don't like the dj's, I don't like the press.

So why are you talking to us?

Yeah, right. Well you're buying this round, mate. (Ulp!)

So exit Purple and enter Rainbow, which is dominated by the twin howitzers of Ritchie and Cozy Powell, once with Beck, on drums. (Ronnie Dio is a good enough singer, but it would take the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to stand up to the volume of those two.)

Cozy and I, we're always trying to outsmart each other. He's a very fast person, him with his cars. Me, with my medieval music, he hasn't got a clue where I'm coming from. So we have our differences, but when we're on stage we click because he wants to be the best drummer and I want to be the best guitarist.

It works to a certain degree. Sometimes we do tend to get a little carried away with being aggressive when we should slack it off. I find to record we should tone down everything. We have to mush it up a little, put some icing on it to make it sell.

In Europe and Japan they're more into adrenalin, but in America they wanna hear safer things. I've never really studied American culture as far as music goes, but I've been listening more and more. We're gonna concentrate more on a back beat. We'll be playing more slow songs. I know what the American people are looking for -- I don't really care what the American dj's are looking for; they piss me off no end.

Jeez, shades of Radio Radio! Just how far would you compromise?

Not very far. I cannot play anything which is not in me. I could never play like Fleetwood Mac. I could play like that if I was fast asleep (chuckling). I'm not trying to be derogatory, I just cannot play that way. Lucky for them it's worked because they were going through some hard times about six years ago. So I'm glad for them as people. They're very nice people.

How do you feel about your audiences, seeing as how they tend to be so wild and crazy. It's hard to imagine that they catch too much of the music.

In Purple I was happy to have any audience. In Rainbow I come off stage quite confused sometimes. There are certain numbers we do that are very intricate and I know they've missed them. But I can't expect them to catch on. They're not musicians, it's Friday night, they've finished their work, they want to have a good time, they want to see someone break a guitar (which he often does). I can't expect to educate people because if they'd wanted to become educated they would have become musicians themselves. At the same time I do like to listen to certain quiet parts that we play and get on to the party at the end. I don't understand an audience that's stomping all the way through and saying 'let's boogie man, let's get it on.'

So you do get upset.

Yeah, I do a bit. I'll just stop or I'll go through the motions. 'We'll give you what you want,' four-to-the-bar-stomp-stomp-stomp.

Ever considered playing another kind of music?

Yeah, I have thought about that, but I'm very interested in extreme rock 'n roll. At the other extreme, I'm interested in medieval modes, quiet 15th-century sitting-in-a-park playing little minuets ... I don't like to mix the two. I haven't reached the stage where I can play classical the way I'd like.

I think I would miss the masses. Those type of people, they're extremely brilliant players, but they play in front of twenty people. There is that self-esteem thing that comes in too. You do like to be proud of yourself and play in front of all these people, sharing something. If you're playing in front of 20 people you think it's a bit strange, what you're doing. You need a certain response. Five to 10 thousand people is great, after that it becomes...

What if Rainbow got really big?

Well, I'm self-destructive. I would knock it on the head and start again. I love to play in Europe because they have seaters over there that are no bigger than eight thousand, ten thousand, and that's just right. You can still become intimate with the audience. In America things can get out of hand, as with Purple playing stadiums. I don't think I would want to do that again.

You've got a manager coming along saying, 'Look, this is worth a lot of money. Think of what you can buy.' And you're thinking 'Yeah, that's true.' You do the gig and you think, 'Oh dear, all those people have just heard me play a lot of nonsense.' But when you're faithful to the people and you say 'Look, I've got something really honest to play to you, listen,' they won't. When you're in front of 100,000 people and you're playing utter shit, because you're a cult figure or a name, they'll listen, because they've been told by their friends to listen.

Does it ever bother you that don't get more respect?

In a way, I'm good. Some people know I'm good. Some people I want to know I'm good. I'm not into being a personality, a Johnny Carson, a Rod Stewart. I'm very thankful for as far as I've got, and I really don't think I should have any more than I have. If I hear other bands and I hear how bad they are, I get a little bit upset that people are buying their records in the millions. But I know my limitations. I think this is more than I deserve. I can't believe that people take as much notice of me as they do, I just think there's such a poor standard in rock 'n roll. I think it's disgustingly low.

Rock isn't a musicians' medium.

No, but it should be. Because of its limitations rock 'n roll is very difficult and classical is very closely related to rock 'n roll. It's very disciplined; the modal structure is similar to rock. But I'm talking about progressive rock, not the Rolling Stones. When I play I always incorporate classical runs from violins and things like that.

So whatever happened to original Rainbow members Tony Carey (keyboards) and Jimmy Bain (bass)?

After a mysterious laugh: Tony was a bit of a raver so he got a bit too heavy. He was asked to leave the first time and he was asked to come back. After a while he left of his own accord. He couldn't take the pressure. We were coming into contact with unforseen psychic phenomena, which is kind of another story. It's just kind of a hobby of mine, psychic phenomena. He couldn't take that, 'cause we were playing at the Chateau in France. It got very heavy spiritually and he backed out. He thought I was completely mad. He thought I was trying to kill him. I don't know why he thought that. (Said with no irony.) Jimmy Bain was a great guy, fantastic person, but his bass playing left a little bit to be desired.

How do you feel about your music being called heavy metal?

It's better than punk, which means inferior. It suits us fine. I know I can play a bloody concerto any day, so it doesn't bother me at all. It would bother someone who was sensitive and knew their limitations.

By this time the hour was late and things were decidedly less businesslike. The pursuit of musically relevant info was soon abandoned for more speculative matters, as Blackmore reflected...

Sometimes I feel like I own the stage completely, on my own for an hour. I'm just going crazy. The adrenalin is so much that all my musical upbringing is thrown into intensity on stage rather than being a musician. After 22 years of playing it goes instead into a mood and comes out as an aggressive bulldozer. I don't know why; I often wonder why. I'm not an aggressive person offstage; I don't know why I am on.

Way back when, you used to say how rude you thought Americans are. Does that still hold?
I've accepted America for what it is. The older I get, the broader my outlook on life gets. I can see why someone thinks this way or that. The one thing I think about Americans, I wish they would bring up their kids with a bit more discipline. Stop giving them hamburgers and shit like that. Stop pampering them. The mother and father seem to lay down the whole life for them; the kid takes over the whole family. I think it's disgusting.

What about the times we live in?
I think we're going through a period now where nobody knows what's really going to happen in 25 years. [I do! 25th anniversary albums!] This era will be written off as a group called the Rutles, or should I say the Beatles, and that's about it. We're just bordering on being invaded by UFOs, which I think certainly will come in the next five to ten years -- which could coincide with the earth being taken over by Satan. But who knows.

Let's face it. The last 36 years we've had UFO sightings. They're right here now, so it's just about ready to happen, I think. They're obviously watching us now. Otherwise, it's gonna be bombs from Russia or arrows from the east. It was Edgar Cayce, maybe. But he predicted the earthquake in California that didn't happen...

Ship to ground! We've lost control of the interview! Ritchie Blackmore obviously displayed a great deal of himself in this interview, and I'm not gonna be dumb enough to try and summarize him with some slick closing remark. He may have said the most about himself when discussing his reputation as a heavy: I have a bad reputation but I don't mind. My good friends, people who really know me, know what I am. He said he got his image by being very moody, being very sincere, telling people to fuck off when I shouldn't have done. But I don't care, not at all. I quite like it.

And that's the way it is. This is Jon Young, signing off from Connecticut, USA.

Jon Young, Trouser Press, July 1978